April 24, 2010

Keeping up with the Joneses

You need to trust me on something, and that is that this post is pretty ironic. Not the details of it; the fact of its existence.

The track season is now over for A’s team (yes, that’s early, but that story is too long to tell here, nor is it mine) and we celebrated a little by going down to the Spectrum 8 to see The Joneses. I’d heard nothing at all about this movie, which surprised me: Demi Moore and David Duchovny and no buzz? Huh?

It turned out to be a good choice. I won’t try to summarize the plot, because watching it unfold is really one of the joys of this movie. Instead, here’s why I thought it was good: it made me think without hitting me over the head with its message. It did not forget to tell a story, and if parts of the story are old they’re told in a new way. (In this way it has a lot in common with its slightly older sibling, “Up in the Air.”) It took a curious and perhaps a bit far-out premise, but then dropped in real characters (thanks, David, Demi) and followed the results out to their reasonable conclusions.

If you go see it—and if you liked “Up in the Air” you’ll like this—you’ll understand what’s ironic about this post.

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May 24, 2009


We went out last night to see Sugar, a (fictional) movie about a minor-league pitcher from the Dominican Republic, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, and his adventures in single-A baseball.

The basic plot premise sounds fantastic, and aside from some pacing issues I think it’s done pretty well: Santos, who was signed with the Kansas City “Knights” (all his gear has the “KC” of the Royals) at age sixteen, gets called up to spring training in Arizona at twenty and eventually is assigned to the single-A Swing in “Bridgetown”, Iowa, which seems to be a stand-in for the Quad City River Bandits in Davenport. (They were known as the “Swing” for several years, and the home game scenes are shot at their park.)

So, drop a young, inexperienced and non-English-speaking Dominican into Iowa, playing baseball at the very edge of his ability, and what happens?

Well, things get vague there. The movie is pretty good at spelling out Santos’s difficulties with language and culture (it takes him days to learn to order anything but french toast at a diner in Arizona), but less so at showing his growing disillusionment with baseball. One friendly Iowan asks Santos about a scar on his forehead, and when he stumbles for the words in English, tells him to go ahead in Spanish; his explanation, then, is presented without subtitles, and we get a quick dose of how confusing the English-speaking world is for him, and we can see from the blank expression of the questioner that she isn’t picking up any more than we are.

There’s a vivid contrast with a teammate who was drafted out of Stanford, particularly when the pair discusses what they might do if baseball doesn’t work out for them. Sugar itself is definitely a theme; it’s another Dominican export and comes up in different forms, from rum to syrup, at the oddest times, though I don’t have anything intelligent to say about the symbolism.

It’s not clear if this is a baseball movie and it’s definitely grimmer and tougher than the “making it as a pro athlete” movie from 2005, Goal!. I wonder if a similar scenario, given a full-on Hollywood treatment, would have been a more gripping story, or too sweet.

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January 5, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire

I saw this movie last night. It’s had a lot of buzz and, in my opinion, justifies it; it’s a story that’s both very old and told in a very new way.

A day later, the thing that’s sticking with me now is the two boys who are the center of the film. Actually, it’s one, Jamal, in the center, and his older brother Salim, who is a supporting character in the movie’s story but his own action hero in his own mind.

These kids come from nothing—in one scene they are sleeping in a garbage dump—but throughout the film, from start to finish, they’re never down. They’re either running a scam (generally Salim’s idea) or in full retreat. They never seem to have anything more than the clothes on their backs (in one scene, Jamal gives away a stolen $100 bill, apparently unaware or careless of its value; $100 is pretty close to 5,000 rupees today). And because they have nothing to lose, there’s nothing holding them back; they’re almost always on offense, capitalizing on where they are and seldom, if ever, looking back.

A movie about that kind of grinding poverty could easily be depressing, but this attitude, just a slight twist on the depressive attitude which so often keeps real poor people poor, makes it refreshing. And by the end, the game show Jamal is on looks like a pitiful toy of a contest after what he’s already been through—no wonder he has such contempt for it, and for the money it offers. It’s never been about the money for him.

The rating is R for “some violence and disturbing images” but for me, the most disturbing image was Jamal and his brother wandering around the upper floor of a high-rise under construction, with no railings. There’s no violence in this movie you won’t find on TV if you stay up after 9. There’s language, of course, and not just English.

Posted by pjm at 11:33 PM | Comments (4)

November 12, 2008

Run for your Life

We rented Run for your Life last weekend. In case you haven’t heard of it already, this is “the Fred Lebow movie,” and if you haven’t heard of Fred Lebow, either you don’t run, or haven’t been running long enough.

Everything’s debatable, but the easiest thing to say is that for over 20 years, Fred was synonymous with the New York City Marathon, and as the race director when the marathon first leapt out of Central Park to become the sprawling five-borough monster it now is, he essentially invented the concept of the modern big-city marathon-as-event.

As a biography, the film begins and ends with the marathon, but as a life, Fred’s was remarkably focused on running. I found the movie interesting because I know so many of the people interviewed, but probably only one of them would know me in a line-up (George Hirsch, then publisher of The Runner and now publisher of La Cucina Italiana, for which CMI built a website). (I guess Allan Steinfeld, Fred’s successor and right-hand man, would recognize me, but he would have to be prompted to know my name.)

The thread of the narrative jumps around a lot in time, following its themes, but a few things jumped out at me. One was that by being the first in so many areas, the NYCM wound up incurring some serious disadvantages—they chased some “advances” which turned out to be dead ends, to mix metaphors, and got caught there while everyone else moved on. I guess leading the marathon pack can be more of a hash than a race, sometimes. (I think this sort of problem has a lot to do with why the World Marathon Majors were created—so the five can share information and avoid development dead ends.)

Another, though, was Fred’s insistence on using all available cash and more on advancement and promotion. One former treasurer told a story of describing how much money the NYRRC had lost in the previous year; Fred stood up immediately afterward and announced, “I hope we can lose even more money next year.”

Particularly if you’re familiar with the NYRR and its operations, the movie sheds a lot of light on the roots of what happens inside that 89th Street brownstone.

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October 15, 2008

Two movies

I’ve either not felt like I had anything to say here, or no time to write up what I do have to say, or both, recently.

A few years ago someone’s advice for blog writers (as though that class of person really listens to advice, myself included) was “write reviews.” I have at least two movies to talk about, and haven’t filed anything in that category for a long time.

Flash of GeniusWe saw “Flash of Genius” a few weeks ago. I liked it, but not as much as I had hoped to; I guess I hoped it would be a story about a triumph of engineering, but somewhere along the way it turned in to a courtroom drama.

That was fine, certainly, and certainly the “bad guys” were well set up to be disliked, but I found I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the movie’s hero, either. (Brief plot synopsis: Detroit-area electrical engineer Bob Kearns invents an interval windshield wiper system in his garage while all the big auto makers are trying unsuccessfully to do the same. Kearns hopes to manufacture it himself and supply all the automakers and is in negotiations with Ford when they abruptly pull out. A few months later, Ford rolls out new models with interval wipers, and Kearns launches a multi-year campaign to sue the pants off all the major automakers.)

Certainly Bob Kearns got railroaded somewhere along the line, and I wanted him to win in the end, but I found myself disagreeing with so many of his choices that I didn’t hold very much sympathy for him by the end. Why did he feel like he needed to manufacture the components himself instead of licensing the patent as nearly every inventor in the world does? What did he really gain by losing the best years of his life (and more) to a lawsuit? There’s no clear winner in this movie; I liked it for being challenging, but resented it for reminding me that the world is complicated.

The ExpressSunday night I went to see “The Express”, partly because I was interested, partly because the star is a recent graduate of The College (and a football player there, thanks). It’s a much simpler story, with clear heroes and villains; the hero is Ernie Davis, a Syracuse halfback who won the Orangemen a national title and became the first black athlete to win the Heisman trophy. The villains are, well, anyone who doesn’t recognize the hero as a hero. (It’s not that simple, obviously, but the virtue of this story isn’t in breaking new ground; it’s in reminding us where the old ground once needed breaking, to torture a metaphor.)

I didn’t learn anything tremendous from the movie, but I learned about Ernie Davis, and that was a pretty cool story for a Sunday evening.

Now Playing: Dove and the Waterline from Miles from the Lightning by Jeffrey Foucault

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February 22, 2008

Spirit of the Marathon

Last night I went to the “encore presentation” of Spirit of the Marathon down in Hadley. I’ve read a lot of rave reviews of the movie, but I came in with a somewhat more skeptical viewpoint.

The positives are many. The characters followed in the movie are fantastic: Deena Kastor displaying her “relentlessly positive” nature, training for Chicago ‘05 through a stress fracture in her foot; Daniel Njenga, twice third and once second in Chicago; graduate student Lori O’Connor, who probably could have convinced theaters-full of spectators to run marathons just on her own; and several other less speedy runners whose marathons went somewhat less smoothly. (One didn’t even start the marathon.) I liked seeing many of my friends and colleagues up on the screen, talking about the things they know best. (I never realized that the founders of the Boston Marathon drew a parallel between the legendary Pheidippides and Paul Revere, the rationale behind the great race’s Patriots’ Day scheduling.) And the movie made Chicago itself look spectacular; it’s like an hour-and-a-half advertisement for the Chicago Marathon and should go a long way towards repairing the damage done by the disastrous 2007 edition.

The filmmakers do a very good job presenting the essence of a big-city marathon: the crowds of otherwise non-athletic people dedicating hours and months to training, the sweep of the thing (there’s a spectacular aerial shot of the race start which just keeps panning up and up, looking farther and farther back in the crowd, and the crowd - just - never - ends.) They capture the scale of the undertaking very, very well, right down to the joke I always make about how the people who run the marathon are swearing never to do another and the people who watch are promising they’ll run next time. And I liked picking out faces in the “crowd,” like the men running around Deena Kastor in the marathon.

My problem with Spirit is with the tag line they use, a direct quote from an interview with Dick Beardsley in the opening minutes. “Once you cross that line, no matter how fast or how slow, your life will change forever.” Maybe so. But I’ve crossed the finish lines of three marathons (and the start lines of five, for what it’s worth) and I think it’s fair to say that none of them have changed my life.

I think the reason for this is that I’m not really the target audience for this film. I don’t need to be sold on the marathon; I bought in a long time ago (and then bought out when I realized that marathons aren’t for me.) I bought in on many of these ideas back in junior high school, when I first started running cross country; they’ve been part of my way of thinking for twenty years. My life was changed forever some time in eighth grade when I realized that the longer the race was, the more likely I was to outrun the other kids my age; there was no change left for the marathon.

I think this is one of the problems with the way the movie has been marketed in the U.S. The pattern has been promotion through running publications, running websites, and the running community; the only non-runners or non-marathoners (the ones who will really be seeing something new to them) who see the movie are ones brought to the showings by runners. Maybe that’s fine, but it seems like the audience the film speaks to and the one which actually turned up in the theater are a bit different.

The theater was about half-full (A said when she went, last month, it was almost completely full) and only six or seven of us sat through the credits for the “extra” features at the end. I can’t say they missed very much, to be honest, although it was fun to see a bit more of the work that went in to making the film at all.

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February 18, 2008

Where are the women's movies?

I got sent a link today about Born to Run, which isn’t surprising given my known interests. However, it would probably be a surprise to the link sender to know that I finished watching the trailer feeling mildly annoyed.

Before I get started: Born to Run, based what I could work out from the trailer, is a film about several top-flight American distance runners training for the Olympic Trials Marathon held last November in New York City. It focuses on their training, their lives, and their backgrounds, tracing them up to the race itself. (It happens that one of their athletes, Ryan Hall, won the race.) The trailer is full of driving music at the interface of hip-hop and rock, lots of funky camera angles and shots out the windows of cars as the athletes go on their punishing training runs. It looks exciting; it looks like something that makes distance running, even marathoning, look kind of cool. So far, so good.

But this is where I apparently lose the plot. First, I had this feeling that I’d seen this film already, and within a minute I came up with not one, but two recent direct-to-DVD productions following the same path with different races: Five Thousand Meters (Nothing Comes Easy), about the men’s 5,000m final at the 2004 Olympic Track Trials (a curiously depressing film, since the athletes on screen spend so much time talking about how hard they work and how little return they see on that work), and last year’s Showdown, about the 2007 USATF cross-country championships.

Both movies followed the same pattern (apparently) that Born to Run appears to follow; I have to wonder if the different event (the marathon) is likely to make a notably different movie in any way. There’s the tantalizing offer of race footage from major races like the 10,000m at USATF Nationals in Indianapolis last June, but I honestly don’t have a whole lot of appetite, at this point in time, for more gaunt young men telling me how hard they’re working for their narrow chance to win an Olympic berth.

Second, and perhaps it’s Showdown that had me thinking of this: where are the women? That’s three movies about the men, from 5,000m to the marathon, and aside from Deena Kastor’s leading role in Spirit of the Marathon (which I have yet to see, incidentally), no focus on women. Showdown was an egregious offender on this score, treating the Boulder cross-country championships as though Goucher vs. Torres vs. Ritzenhein vs. Culpepper was the only race on the card, when the Olympic-medalist Kastor vs. new-American-Record-holder Shalane Flanagan promised to be equally thrilling, if not more. You could be forgiven if, after reading the entire website for Born to Run, you were unaware that there is also an Olympic Trials Marathon for women, and that it will be held in Boston in April.

(If you’d like to brand me as a hypocrite on this score, I had an article published in a recent issue of Running Times in which I called Bernard Lagat’s medal in the 1,500m in Osaka the first won by an American since 1908, or something like that; I should’ve said “by an American male”, of course. I don’t think this gaffe makes my point false, though.)

(It’s not just movies, either: all the good running novels are about men. Is there something about women’s running that makes it incompatible with the form? Or is it that only men are getting running novels published?)

Maybe this makes me a bad running fan, but I’m ready to move on from the interviews-and-races format in running movies. I’d be a lot more excited to see a Bud Greenspan quality film of the Trials race by itself. And I’d like to see it in a boxed set with the women’s Trials race film. And that means I just can’t get that thrilled about Born to Run.

Now Playing: Exit Music from Concert to End Slavery by Mutual Admiration Society

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December 23, 2007

Getting Boston right (even though the details are all wrong)

Last night, I finished watching Saint Ralph, a 2004 movie about a 14-year-old boy who decides he’s going to win the 1954 Boston Marathon because it will bring his mother out of a coma.

Reducing the plot to that one sentence makes it sound silly, but remember, we’re talking about a 14-year-old boy here, the least logical and rational sub-group of the human species. And Ralph actually makes a pretty good go of it, inadvertently finding a coach with Olympic credentials and discovering, through his own misunderstandings, a lot of solid truths about distance running. It’s as though he’s in the same room with every other marathoner, but he climbed through the window instead of coming in the door.

The not-so-subtle sub-plot is Ralph’s relationship with God. Ralph is a student at a Catholic school in Hamilton, Ontario, and his rationale for taking on the marathon is almost completely religious: He’s heard that it would take a miracle to bring his mother out of the coma. He’s told it would be a miracle if he could win Boston. So he figures, maybe that’s the miracle his mother needs, and he goes after it.

Like Life at These Speeds is not a running novel but not a novel about running, Saint Ralph is a movie about running, but not a running movie. It’s difficult to credit Ralph’s ungainly form and dramatic improvement from September to April. And the segments at the Boston Marathon are only Boston by name, as though they were filmed by someone who had heard stories of the Marathon but had never even seen pictures of the city or the course. (Some details are closer: the age of the marathon, the warmup in a churchyard, and even Ralph’s tune-up race, Hamilton’s Around the Bay, which still turns up on the biographies of serious Boston contenders. Boston is run on a Monday, though at that point Patriot’s Day was not tied to Mondays and the race could have been any day of the week.)

The big picture, though, is spot on. Ralph’s coach takes him on only if Ralph will promise to stop talking about miracles; instead, Ralph is put on a rigorous program of hard work, patience, and attention to detail. His coach shows him how to hook his lofty dreams to a plan, and where persistence and patience can go. And, of course, the old wisdom about how “God helps those who help themselves.” (Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “The harder I work, the more [luck] I have.”)

Lest one think the movie gets too heavy, though, God turns up at irregular intervals to give Ralph advice. He looks like Ralph’s father, but dressed as Santa Claus.

Now Playing: East of the Mountains from Songs for a Hurricane by Kris Delmhorst

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October 14, 2007


Last night we went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a sequel to the 1998 movie (how often do movies wait nine years for their sequels?) which deals with, among other things, the early stages of English exploration of North America. Sir Walter Raleigh blows in to court to seek funding for his colonization of North America (a quest one of his nephews would continue quite near where I grew up) and proposes to name the entire region “Virginia, for our Virgin Queen.” Elizabeth smirks a bit and ripostes, “If I am to marry, will you rename it Conjugia?”

Raleigh paints a picture of a “New World” largely peopled by savages without kings of their own, tempting Elizabeth to reach for empire, but he was speaking with his own agenda. On the trip to and from Stuttgart, I chewed through Charles Mann’s 1491, which promises in its subtitle “New revelations of the Americas before Columbus.” One of these “revelations” is that some recent estimates place the population density of America before Columbus significantly higher than that of Europe, at least in some sections of South and Central America, a picture somewhat different from Raleigh’s. Even the area around present-day Boston had, 100 years before the Pilgrims arrived, a dense enough population that the various groups often tried to push others away to gain more space for themselves.

Mann seems to find his subtitle problematic, and admits that many of the “revelations” he delivers date back to the 1960s or earlier. But, he points out, many high school and college texts are still being printed which paint a portrait of the Americas prior to 1492 which is now under attack, if not flat out wrong. The picture of pre-Columbian America which most of us are taught today was created by the dominant (Western) culture out of ignorance, mis-reading of the evidence, and attempts to avoid the realities of their own effects on the continent. The picture of the Americas as thinly populated, for example, largely ignores the horrific epidemics of illnesses common in Europe but unheard of in America, which killed (depending on whose reports you believe) as many as nineteen in every twenty Indians before the Europeans were able to get established on the continent, let alone take a census.

Mann tries to steer clear of accusations, finger-pointing, and blame-assigning. He picks out a few scholars who he considers responsible for the mischaracterization of entire continents, but generally finds them mistaken rather than malicious. More than anything else, he prefers to put some kind of scale on the kind of cultures we (a collective, global “we”) have lost in the collision of continents five hundred years ago, and the result is actually quite fascinating.

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July 19, 2007


Image from Paprika
Image from Paprika
Image from Paprika
Image from Paprika

It’s interesting to me that when I leave movies, I tend to be thinking about whether or not I saw an interesting or entertaining story. But tonight, leaving Paprika, I realized that I had seen something—that the images that made up the movie made such a strong impression that the story and its myriad overlapping details barely mattered.

I won’t even try to explain the plot; I didn’t understand lots of it anyway. It’s in Japanese, with subtitles, and I couldn’t keep everyone’s names straight, and a large part of the story hinges on the fact that the characters slip in and out of each others’ dreams like walking into different rooms. There’s science fiction (“speculative fiction”) and something of a mystery, plus enough of a love story (four men, two women, but are they one woman, and which one?) to keep things from settling in any one place. But it’s like going to a really good concert with your eyes, or seeing what a good race feels like; you become so engaged in the flow of the images that everything else fades away. The end is like stopping, or like surfacing.

It also makes a pretty powerful argument for this Newsweek reviewer (who feels pretty much the same way I do about the movie: “You wake from it as if from a dream: spooked, provoked and exhilarated.”) Why do we market animation only to children in America, when movies like this are possible? (It’s rated R somewhat more plausibly than Once, which got its rating for language; this one includes undressed cartoons, no more offensive than a good museum, but also some mildly disturbing images.)

Anyway, look, don’t take my word for it. I’m dancing about architecture here. Go see it, and really see something.

Now Playing: The Dawn Patrol from Tarantula by Ride

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May 28, 2007


There are many advantages to cities which I haven’t taken advantage of since we moved here. Tonight we finally hit one; we saw a movie which, so far as I know, is in pretty limited release. (Despite being a winner at Sundance, Yahoo! Movies links a 197x movie of the same name when theaters are showing it.)

I picked Once out of the lineup because the leading actor, Glen Hansard, is also the frontman for The Frames, who opened for Josh Ritter when we saw him at the Somerville Theater. That’s a reach, but it sounded like a good enough reason to pick the movie. (Hansard’s previous movie work is long ago: he was the guitarist in The Commitments.) The short synopsis is that Hansard plays a busker and sometime vacuum-cleaner repairman approached on the street by a Czech immigrant cleaning lady (Hansard’s sometime collaborator Marketa Iglova); she plays piano. As they tentatively get to know each other, it is mostly through music; their conversations cautious and guarded, the songs much less so.

The marketing for the movie is clearly pitching it as a parallel to Before Sunrise (which I admit I haven’t seen) but it’s really a musical in the way of a lot of old-time movies—with the characters breaking into song about every five minutes. That makes it sound incongruous, but the music fits the movie as though it was written for it. (I think some of the songs are longtime Frames songs, some are from Hansard and Iglova’s collaboration, “The Swell Season,” and some may have been written for the movie—but it’s not clear which are which.)

There are dozens of silly little moments which make it endearing—Iglova towing her Hoover around Dublin behind her, or the band which eventually backs their demo tape (They’re playing by Phil Lynott’s statue, and say cautiously, “We really only do Lizzy.”) Hansard’s Takamine (a very nice guitar for a busker) has clearly been played long and hard: he’s worn right through the deck below the sound hole, and the ribs show through.

I’ve never seen a musical movie work this well, particularly given the contrasting film of the year (Music & Lyrics.) It’s understated and underacted, with wobbly cameras and dark nighttime shots (hooray for daylight) but if it shows up near you it’s worth making time for.

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May 12, 2007

Train Man (Densha Otoko)

It’s a self-proclaimed tradition around here that when A is away overnight (e.g. at a multi-day track meet) Iz and I have a Boys’ Night. This generally involves action movies and pizza, although if Jackie Chan is involved we substitute Chinese take-out for the pizza. In all fairness, Iz generally sleeps through the movie, nor is he terribly fond of pizza (or Chinese take-out) which means it’s not very different from any other night for him, other than that he’s getting by with a reduced staff, and I often stay up too late (note timestamp.)

Usually I wander around the new releases, but tonight I was thinking I’d fill in some of the “I ought to have seen this by now” holes and get The Seven Samurai. However, there was no Kurosawa to be found, not even Rashomon. Instead, I found myself holding a copy of train_man (Densha Otoko).

The plot is not too unique: cripplingly shy geek (the titular train_man of the title—that’s his online handle) meets, and attempts to court, pretty girl, while hampered by his inability to relate to real people. The poor otaku can barely talk to her without nearly hyperventilating; he cribs lines from his PDA and rehearses his phone calls, but is still painfully awkward to watch; this was hard for me, because I hate stories which trade on the embarrassment of a character for entertainment.

The thing that makes the movie is his literal supporting cast: hundreds of users of a bulletin board where he spills his story and asks for help. They tell him where to go for dates, how to dress, what to say, and (crucially) encourage him. The movie focuses on seven in particular: a trio of otaku using a public terminal for message boards and auction sites, another cynical and bitter young male who never leaves his room (an unseen mother leaves food outside his door, pleading with him to eat,) a nurse who carries a photo of her own (apparently past) romance, and a middle-aged man and woman (who turn out to be, apparently, husband and wife—but for much of the movie, they are as far apart as any of the others.)

Watching them follow train_man’s story, and how it affects them, is as intriguing as watching this 22-year-old introvert on his first-ever date. According to the box, the movie is based on a true story—or at least, on a real bulletin board thread which was hugely popular at the time.

One wonders if train_man would’ve had a blog. Or, I suppose, a LiveJournal?

(And, considering that I can’t find Kurosawa, for pity’s sake, in the video store, why did I find this? Did I win some kind of lottery?)

Now Playing: Reprieve from After Everything Now This by The Church

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March 31, 2007

Peaceful Warrior

A and I went to see Peaceful Warrior tonight. I knew very little about the film going in, just a quick synopsis; I picked it because it looked like it might be both entertaining and interesting, and because it was showing at the right time.

If you had to pin this to one of those “X meets Y” formulas, this would be, “The Karate Kid meets Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” This is not entirely a bad thing—I like both titles, though the Karate Kid is getting kitschier as it gets older—but the movie also inherits a certain amount of the tail-chasing “just trust me, this works—and if it doesn’t work, it’s because you didn’t trust me” logic of Seagull.

Quick synopsis is that national-caliber Berkeley gymnast Dan Millman is trying to improve; he wants to make the Olympic Team. He meets an old man who does some impressive, almost supernatural things which Millman can’t understand; he wants to learn this.

For large sections of the movie, Millman almost seems like everyone’s spiritual punching bag. Everything he guesses is wrong. When he manages to get a grip on some of what he’s being taught, and applies it with spectacular results in the gym, he’s elated, but then berated for gloating about it. It’s like spiritual boot camp, and oh, does he ever break down.

The core of the message, is so common-sense it’s almost cliché: Are you happy? What do you believe is going to make you happy? Are you chasing a destination or enjoying a journey? Or, as in the last scene, Millman hears the questions: Where are you? Here. What time is it? Now. What are you? Less obvious is the question: if what you’re doing isn’t making you happy, why not? Where does the love come from?

Like Millman, the movie pitches a lot of questions. Like his mentor, who he calls Socrates, it tends to give only one answer: I don’t have the answers, they’re in you.

Now Playing: We Walk In The Dream from The Distance To Here by Live

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August 14, 2006


I am not a puzzle geek. I sometimes do crosswords on airplanes, or other situations where I don’t actually have a book handy, but what I get out of it is the little thrill of solving the clue, which is akin to the satisfaction of finding a neat block of code for a specific problem or function. I don’t like the idea of solving for time. And I certainly don’t have, as NYT puzzle editor Will Shortz has, a degree in “enigmatology.”

But when I couldn’t tolerate another hour staring at the Perlish guts of Movable Type this afternoon (even though Perl was my first programming language—I don’t count the Pascal I supposedly learned in Comp 11 fourteen years ago, because I didn’t remember it past that semester—it’s about fourth or fifth by now,) the idea of going out to Arlington and watching a movie about a bunch of puzzle geeks was really appealing.

Wordplay” is a bit about Shortz, a bit about the Times crossword puzzle, and mostly about the national crossword tournament Shortz hosts every winter in Stamford, Connecticut. It introduces us to a number of contenders and past winners, not unlike the movie about the spelling bee a few years ago, and ends sweeping through the weekend-long tournament, where hundreds of crossword aficionados tear through seven puzzles, scored on time, completeness, and accuracy.

Unlike the spelling bee, though, this is a low-stress meeting of people who recognize that what they’re doing is, perhaps, a bit off-centered—and even though there are clips, throughout the movie, of celebrities (Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls, Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina) talking about their love of the Times crossword, what really made the movie, for me, was the atmosphere of the tournament. It was competitive, yes, but it was also hundreds of people coming in to this otherwise-unremarkable hotel and saying, “These are my people!”

I’ll never take a crossword as seriously as any of the people in that hotel. But that’s fine; that’s not the point. I do know the feeling they’re talking about, and that’s what they wanted to show me.

Now Playing: 10 A.M. Automatic from Rubber Factory by The Black Keys

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July 11, 2006



I promised more on my electricity shift.

There are a few different things involved here. I’ve been an environmentalist for a long time; I remember going with my mother to the hardware store to pick up some laundry baskets and trash cans to make a recycling center for our garage before I was old enough to drive. I’ve never been a vocal, political, sign-waving environmentalist; just a person who picks up trash, buys compact-fluorescent light bulbs and recycles religiously. I was principally concerned with local issues; I like the places I live, and I don’t like how easy it is for careless people to “foul the nest” in fairly literal ways. I’ve stuck to that; I’ve noticed that A and I generate about half as much trash as the average apartment on our street, and that’s largely because we also recycle about twice as much.

Continue reading "Exhaust"

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June 10, 2006

Really, it's a comedy

When I was taking the “Introduction to Computer Security” class this spring, the professor warned us that from now on we’d be watching hacker-themed movies (e.g. “Hackers,” though she admitted that “Sneakers” wasn’t too bad,) and laughing at parts we weren’t supposed to laugh at.

After all, thinking of “Hackers,” who ever saw a “virus” with a GUI showing its progress? They made security look like a video game (despite the comments on IMDB.)

So I wasn’t terribly disappointed when “Firewall” was the in-flight movie on the way out here. After all, what’s more amusing than Harrison Ford sitting down at a terminal and tapping in a quick access-control rule to stop a distributed brute-force SSH attack? (Answer: the response of the guy who had been monitoring the attack, who makes a wondering comment like, “And it’s resistant to false positives, too!”) If only everyone was so impressed by the ability to write firewall rules, right?

Fax-scanner on computer screen? Ah hah hah. OCR which could then automatically recognize (correctly!) all the account numbers in the resulting (massive graphics) file without making one mistake? It’s improved lately, but not that much. I do have to give them credit for the iPod-as-portable-storage plot tool; security experts have been warning about the iPod’s ability to violate corporate security for a few years now. And how does that guy’s phone camera get such high-resolution shots of a monitor?

I guess the less you know about these things, the easier it is to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the action.

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January 16, 2006


One of the “additional features” on the Murderball DVD is a segment in which the “stars” of the documentary, members of the USA “Quad Rugby” team (that is, rugby as played by quadriplegics, which doesn’t have too much in common with green-grass rugby, other than the violence,) appear on “Larry King Live.” At some point, one of them points out that not only is the film a documentary, but it’s a documentary about people in wheelchairs, which changes the image to, as he put it, “a movie people think they should see, not one they want to see. It’s not like that at all.”

And it’s not. (No movie which includes an episode of “Jackass” as an additional feature could be so classed. A and I agreed that would probably be the only episode of “Jackass” we’d ever see.) However, I did only see it because A was assigned to see it for a class. And I did learn a few things, like a definition of quadriplegic, and the “point” rating system they use to ensure a relatively similar level of physical ability among players on the floor.

At heart, though, it’s a sports movie, following a team (and their rivals’ coach, who was once one of them,) through a World Championship loss and the training cycle leading to their appearance at the Athens Paralympics in 2004 (leading me to wonder what degree of influence the Paralympics have on the architecture of the Olympics—do you build a gymnasium differently if you know you’re going to be repurposing it a few months later?) It’s about personalities. (One player is described by high school classmates: “He was an asshole before the accident, so any attempt to blame his grumpiness on the chair is misguided.”)

The point, stated over and over in the supplementary material, is that the players are “athletes first,” which would seem to go against the way they are introduced at the beginning of the film, with subtitles describing how they came to be quadriplegic. By midway through, it becomes apparent that the titles are less of an attempt to deliver an initial shock and more like a player card, listing the accidents and impairments the way runners list PRs. The point is driven home several times in the interviews with the athletes; most of them reject the idea of having full use of their limbs back. “Look how much we’ve done,” one points out. “We couldn’t compete for a gold medal before.”

Now Playing: End Of The Universe from Live Light (France, 11/1994) by Ride

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January 10, 2006

Lions, tigers and nieces

I saw The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe yesterday. I hit a late-afternoon showing at a poorly-located theater, which meant there were three of us in the theater. (This is rivaled only by the time, in a former job, when the office rented a van to see Prefontaine, and after the first of us bought his ticket, the teller picked up a phone; when we went in, we realized he’d been calling up to the projection room to say, “Looks like you’ll have to show it after all.”)

I think the last time I read the books, I took them out of the Allentown Public Library, which would put it, probably, in summer ‘96. I figured I would have forgotten some details, but apparently I nearly memorized the books the first time around. (Who, in elementary school, wouldn’t have wanted to come back from Narnia with sword and shield to visit vengeance on the bullies? It was my favorite part of The Silver Chair.) There was nothing which disappointed me by its absence: someone else noted that the books are short enough that little needs cutting to fit a feature-length movie (unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings.)

Anyone who’s avoiding the movie because of “the Christian allegory” should go see it anyway. There is precisely one major plot point which parallels the New Testament, and if there are church groups taking their children to see it, they’ll need to do some explaining to make sure their children get the point.

Was I blown away? No, not really. I think the books remain ten times stronger than the film; they are better paced, and because they describe just enough and leave out just enough, any reader with an active imagination has far more vivid pictures in their head than can be realized on film. The scene at the Stone Table, in particular, was much more cold and dreadful in print. Also, the books communicated the passage of time in a way the movie didn’t. But other things took. Lucy, for example, somehow reminded me of my younger niece, and the sorrow or joy on her face moved me more than whatever was moving her.

That’s a pretty mixed evaluation. I guess I’d sum it up as “not as good as the book,” but that doesn’t make it a bad movie by any stretch. I hope they continue the series; I’m looking forward to the Voyage and The Horse and His Boy particularly.

Now Playing: Another Satellite from Skylarking by XTC

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July 17, 2005

No "Heights" here

It doesn’t look like Heights is going to play here. A saw it in NYC, where it was playing on one screen in all of Manhattan. Mel and Julie saw it in San Francisco, and also offered positive reviews. But it just doesn’t seem to be in the lineup around here; just more summer-movie garbage. I couldn’t even motivate myself to see any of what is playing even for air conditioning on Friday night; that’s saying quite a lot, I’m afraid.

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June 21, 2005

Wider release?

A few months ago I posted here about Heights, which opened Friday in NYC and LA. Unfortunately, I’m missing Amy’s party (tonight) due to logistical difficulties (my car is making intermittent un-car-like noises.)

I’m hoping enough people see the movie in New York and LA that it opens elsewhere. Like, y’know, here. (Or maybe I’ll have a few minutes to see it when I’m in CA later this week. Assuming I haven’t bitten off too much.)

Now Playing: Is This Where You Live? from Hindsight by The Church

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January 18, 2005


I got email this morning from one of my former roommates, which I think is worth sharing (mostly) in full. Links, emphasis, etc. are mostly mine.

As many of you know, my girlfriend Amy Fox has written a movie called Heights, which is premiering next week at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and will open officially on June 10. The screenplay was bought and produced by Merchant Ivory and is being released by Sony Pictures Classics. It stars Glenn Close, Elizabeth Banks, Jesse Bradford and James Marsden, among others.

It’s a great film and all signs lead us to believe it will be a big hit.

It’s also Amy’s chance to, put bluntly, cash in on eight years of toiling away at her computer in relative obscurity to try to make a big splash as the entertaining, quirky writer we all know that she is. If this premiere goes well, it could take her career to a whole new level. That’s good both for Amy and for anybody who appreciates seeing smart, sexy and fresh stories at their local movie house.

Why am I telling you all this?

In the film business, the writer is often overlooked in the rush to swoon over celebrity actors and star directors. Heights is Amy’s story, based on a play she wrote in 2000 and adapted by Amy over a three-year period leading up to filming. She has worked hard crafting each subtlety that makes this film work. But she could use some exposure.

I have attached a press release about the opening of Amy’s film to this e-mail. In the spirit of viral publicity, please forward it to people you know who are in the film or media industries, especially those who, for example, write about movies for magazines, newspapers or television. Our goal is to build buzz about Heights; make sure that people who talk publicly (or privately) about Heights also talk about Amy; and, of course, to hook Amy up with people who may want to be involved with her next projects.

As far as I know, I only know one person in the film industry: Amy. And while I know plenty of people in media industries, they don’t generally write about movies for magazines, newspapers, or television. Furthermore, I’m not sure about helping my roommate “hook up” his girlfriend with “people who want to be involved with her.” (That’s a joke. I promise.) But maybe you do.

Or maybe you just know Amy and/or Z. and appreciate the news. Either way, the name-dropping is a bit fun, and if I don’t have actual contacts to contribute, at least I can throw in a little Google juice.

Now Playing: Buck Hill from Hootenanny by The Replacements

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August 6, 2004

Weekend outlook

A. is, regrettably and abruptly, away for the weekend, so I’m left with an unplanned weekend, just me and the Iz.

This can only mean one thing:

Action movie weekend.

(OK, maybe a few other things.)

Now playing: Crash from Millionaires by James

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July 1, 2004

Sympathy for the wrong character

Some geeks do television sci-fi. I didn’t do television very much; instead I developed a fondness for James Bond movies. Not that I was impressed with, say, “Die Another Day,” but there’s always something to be impressed with.

In particular, in “Goldeneye” there was this Russian hacker. To me, he seemed like a relatively sympathetic character, if only because he was generally hacking in a misguided effort to impress the girl. (Who, of course, ended up with Bond. Sorry, Moneypenny.)

Maybe the thing I identified with was the physical expression of what he was doing. When he was working on a program, he wasn’t just furiously tapping at the keyboard; what was going on in his head had him positively bursting with fidgets until he could express it in working code. He perpetually clicked a ballpoint pen open and closed (which, in a world which still included Q, is never a good idea.) He bounced his feet. And, when he made it work, he would leap to his feet and announce triumphantly, “I am in-veen-cible!”

Every now and then I code something and get just that feeling. But I don’t think anyone would get the reference if I jumped up and shouted, “I am in-veen-cible!”

Anyway, this guy winds up, of course, working for the Bad Guy, due to his unfortunately questionable ethics, and therefore dies a suitably dramatic and supposedly well-deserved death. I wonder if I was the only geek in the audience thinking, “Dude! That was a great hack! Why’d he have to die?”

Now playing: You Wreck Me from Wildflowers by Tom Petty

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June 21, 2004

Saved! - a sort of review

Not something I plan on doing often, but this has been percolating in my head since I saw it yesterday. And perhaps I should be doing it more often, if Tony is to be believed?!?

The key to Saved! is a throwaway line about halfway through. Pastor Skip is talking to someone who isn’t listening, and he tells a story about someone else telling him, “I can’t tell the difference between Christian rock and rock rock anymore.”

Put that together with the fact that the allegedly-Christian rock band at the “prom” is “playing” nothing but Replacements tunes, and you’re making progress. (Lip-syncing the actual recordings, in fact, not even a studio-band cover. “We’ll inherit the earth, but we don’t want it” is hardly an anthem for the born again—am I the only one who recognized it? This is a band which recorded songs like “Androgynous” and “Gary’s Got a Boner,” folks.) And the detail that Michael Stipe is a co-producer shouldn’t be left out either. I wonder why, in my area, it’s playing at the Pleasant Street Theater and not the big multiplex, but that might be my paranoia coming out.

Despite some of the (muted) uproar, this isn’t an anti-religion movie. It’s a lot more about the way a certain fraction of religious people choose to practice their religion, and the ways it can lead them into ignorance (pregnancy? Who knew?) and self-contradiction. None of this is new (I hope); what Saved! does differently is package it in a contemporary teen-movie wrapper for popular consumption. Run through a few plot points and you can see the candy coating: uncomfortable budding sexuality, check. Competition between “friends” for desirable person of opposite sex, check. Stuck up high school girl, check. Rebellious girl, check. Oblivious single parents, check. Resolution at prom, check.

The danger is that it will be seen as hateful by one side (it’s not—there’s not a hate-able character in the movie) and too lightweight by the other (it may be.)

Jena Malone does a good job with the main character; most of what she needs to do is look pensive and pretty, and she does that well. Mandy Moore is surprisingly good, as is the subplot of Macaulay Culkin and Eva Amurri. Pastor Skip is a stellar foil, but the real talent is in the scriptwriting. They hit all the high points, and hide some perceptive stuff in the cracks and crannies. (The suggestion that, for instance, a “Mercy House” for backsliders like gay teens or unwed mothers “is less for them than for the people who send them there.”) It’s a time bomb; it plants a lot of subtle bits you won’t think about until much later.

That said, if you’ve thought through religion issues before, you probably won’t find much new in there; it’s purpose isn’t to advance the discussion, but (I expect) to start it, hopefully in a less-than-confrontational manner.

Now playing: We’ll Inherit The Earth from Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements

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April 30, 2004

A sense of when to lock

Outer Life has put up two entries titled “Bubble Boy” which hit two of the things I dislike about living in cities. I’m particularly fond of the second, which describes a sort of bunker mentality which I associate with the “burbclaves” in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. (How can I not like a book which, with a straight face, has a main character named Hiro Protagonist?)

Interesting timing, anyway. I was watching the first part of Good Will Hunting the other night. I like that movie, but haven’t seen it full length for years; I don’t often re-watch movies. I’m waiting for the scene where he explains to The Suit why he’s not going to take the think-tank job. Anyway. Last time, I saw it as a smart kid getting his due. This time, I’m seeing it as a defensive and messed-up person figuring out how to open up and let people help him. Odd.

The reason these two things fit together is something I noticed in watching. Whenever Ben Affleck’s character shows up to pick up Will, Will never seems to lock his door. Is he living at home with his parents, so there’s someone there? Why is the door never locked? This is South Boston, after all.

Out here, it’s touch and go when to lock your doors. I lock my car in the driveway; I had a CD player swiped from my car less than half a mile away while I was in the post office. But a neighbor leaves his bike outdoors, unlocked. At work, I don’t lock up; we’re in the middle of nowhere, just about, and several office windows look out on the parking lot. But I reflexively have the key out when I go to leave in the afternoon.

Maybe it’s just a feeling. Maybe when you’re comfortable somewhere, you automatically skip the locking up step. Clearly it’s so low-level I don’t really think about it most of the time.

Now playing: Next Lover from Seven by James

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